Ford Motor Co. is making moves that investors and analysts would have called innovative had they not come several months after the competition.
The Dearborn-based automaker announced it will partner with San Francisco-based ride-hailing company Lyft to build a long-term relationship leading up to the 2021 launch date of Ford’s autonomous vehicles. Alan Hall, spokesman for Ford’s mobility wing, said Ford will work with Lyft to decide how and where to deploy self-driving vehicles when the technology is ready.
The partnership is the latest in a string of tie-ups between Lyft and major auto companies or other technology companies developing autonomous vehicles.
In May, Alphabet Inc. partnered with Lyft to test autonomous cars on roads in Phoenix. Lyft, the second-largest U.S. ride-hailing provider, is also working on autonomous technology with General Motors Co., which is an investor in the startup. In early 2016, GM invested $500 million into Lyft for a 9 percent stake in the ride-hailing company. The companies are working together to introduce autonomous Chevrolet Bolt EVs into a pilot program.
“I do think they are a little bit behind,” said Michelle Krebs, analyst with Cox Automotive. “But it’s a shift in considering partnering. (Ford) kind of went it alone before, and now within a world where there will be a lot of partnerships and companies that will have a lot of automotive partners, I think it’s a sign of the bridging between Silicon Valley and Detroit and the other automakers.”
The Ford announcement is the latest in a growing cache of partnerships and collaborations on autonomous vehicles under the guidance of new CEO Jim Hackett. Hackett, who is scheduled to deliver his assessment of the company’s standing and its future to the investment community Tuesday in New York, has repeatedly stressed the importance of outside influence on Ford’s efforts in autonomous technology, electrification and other mobility fields.
That has Krebs and others expecting more.
“Nobody knows exactly where this is going to go, but Ford needs to be bolder,” she said. “Maybe they’re doing things and they’re not talking about it. They need to lay out a vision. Where does this fit into the scheme of things?”
Few details of the new partnership have been released. Ford sometime in the near future will deploy human-driven vehicles on Lyft’s network, Hall said. But first, Ford and Lyft will swap data, decide which cities to focus on, put an infrastructure plan in place for vehicle dispatch and build the proper technical support structure to back up Ford vehicles on Lyft’s sysytem. The data will also help Ford develop a fleet management system.
Ford is still working out the details on how its vehicles will hop on the Lyft network. Sherif Marakby, Ford vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, wrote in a blog post that the company will deploy human-driven vehicles on Lyft’s network, but the company would not say when or where that will happen. Hall declined to comment on whether those vehicles would be mock autonomous vehicles like the one it gave Domino’s to test with.
The test cars might operate as a Lyft ride, or they might just be hooked into the network for data harvesting. Ultimately, this will allow Ford to test its autonomous vehicle platform’s interaction with the customer-facing Lyft app. Once Ford is sure its autonomous vehicles are safe and the technology is compatible with Lyft’s, the company will deploy self-driving vehicles to be dispatched alongside Lyft’s human-driven vehicles, according to Marakby
The autonomous vehicles, once connected, will roll out when customer demand is high, according to Marakby.
Marakby wrote in his blog post that Lyft customers will not notice a difference in their service. The companies plan to use the partnership to determine how to improve the technology platforms to get ready for autonomous vehicles, which cities need self-driving service, and what sort of infrastructure is needed to ensure vehicle availability.
“Lyft has a network of customers, growing demand for rides and strong knowledge of transportation flow within cities. We have experience with autonomous vehicle technology development and large scale manufacturing. Both companies have fleet management and big data experience,” he wrote. “With our combined capabilities, we believe we can effectively share information to help make the best decisions for the future.”
Lyft published a short statement on the company blog: “We strongly believe that leaders across industries should work collaboratively to introduce self-driving technology in a way that positively impacts our cities. Our two companies share a core belief that the future of transportation will meaningfully reshape how cities are designed, and improve the lives of people who live there.”